March Madness: Iveys, mother and son, in league of their own

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INDIANAPOLIS – Notre Dame coach Niele Ivey figured out how to balance basketball and motherhood decades ago.

The challenge this season was splitting her time adequately between keeping the Fighting Irish’s resurgent season on track and playing the role of proud mother for son Jaden, a star guard for Purdue.

For the Iveys, it’s been a busy year – filled with the joys, disappointments and mysteries that so often clutter the minds of coaches and players. But in their world, mother and son have a basketball bond in their blood.

“I love coaching and mentoring and I love my child, so it’s a fun balancing act,” Niele Ivey said. “It’s sometimes very challenging because I have so much going on. I feel like sometimes, I can’t be there for him. So I try to find ways to be there for him – even when I can’t be there.”

Niele Ivey found a way to make the four-hour roundtrip drive from South Bend to West Lafayette more than a half dozen times this season, using the same roads former Irish men’s coach Digger Phelps once joked didn’t exist. And while she prefers donning her son’s No. 23 jersey at games, Niele sometimes shows up in the warmest outerwear she owns – a Notre Dame jacket, showing off the alma mater where she starred on the court.

She was there last weekend in Indianapolis when her son helped put the Boilermakers in position to win their first Big Ten Tournament title since 2009. And she was there again when her dejected son blamed himself for the championship game loss to Iowa on Sunday.

Through it all, the postgame hugs and private conversations helped this basketball family cope with life’s larger lessons.

“This is for real home,” Jaden Ivey said after a win last week in Indianapolis at the recently rebranded Gainbridge Fieldhouse. “Obviously my mom, she’s been here, played with the (WNBA’s Indiana) Fever, and as a young boy, I can remember coming here. It’s just a great atmosphere to be in.”

Niele Ivey hasn’t forgotten much, either.

In addition to the tears she recalls streaming down her son’s cheeks moments after coach Matt Painter offered him a scholarship, the first Jaden received, she also recalls exactly when she knew he was destined for a basketball career. From that point in middle school, Niele Ivey made sure she did everything in her power to get Jaden the right tools to succesfully pursue his goal.

“I started exposing him to high-level training and better teams, so he could receive the best coaching and training around,” she said. “I didn’t do much (coaching), just making sure he had access to gyms and facilities. I’d rebound a little bit, but I was always that voice in the background.”

They didn’t just grow up with basketball. They blossomed together, too.

When Niele accepted her first head coaching job last season, big things were expected. She played a prominent role on Notre Dame’s 2001 national championship team, spent 12 seasons there as an assistant coach before spending one season on the bench with the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies.

But that first, COVID-19 season as Muffet McGraw’s successor didn’t go according to script. They finished 10-10 and missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1995.

Ivey needed to rethink some things.

“I said let me just focus on the work and getting better every day, get the team better every day because with the pandemic I didn’t even know if we were going to be playing sometimes,” she said. “It wasn’t going to happen overnight, so it kind of put my faith to the test. But I had to trust the process and continue to work and talk about the vision.”

Meanwhile, she knew Jaden was dealing with the tough transition from high school star to college newbie. It didn’t take him or the other freshmen long to make an impression in West Lafayette, butthen came a first-round NCAA Tournament loss to North Texas and suddenly both Iveys headed into the offseason filled with motivation.

They responded like champs.

Notre Dame went 22-8 and regained its status as a regular member of the Top 25. About 100 miles away, Jaden Ivey was emerging as one of nation’s top young guards, an All-American candidate and a possible lottery pick in June’s NBA draft as he helped Purdue go 27-7.

And this weekend, they will share their excitement yet again – separated by nearly 900 miles.

The Boilermakers open tourney play Friday against 14th-seeded Yale (19-11), the Ivy League champs. Then Saturday, the fifth-seeded Irish will face 12th-seeded UMass (26-6), the Atlantic 10 champs, in the women’s tournament.

“It’s a big week for us,” Jaden Ivey said. “Obviously, we get to play the game we love and do it at a high level. I think she’s focused on trying to win and lead her team, and so am I.”

But both will be watching, hoping and praying they can extend their seasons another day, another weekend, another month because that’s life in the Ivey League.

“After the season, I’ll just have to take a week and celebrate it,” Niele Ivey said. “It’s hard to do being in it because you’re always trying to do something else. I didn’t know what to imagine this season, but I definitely couldn’t imagine it being like this.”